Did you smile today? It matters—at least according to research by college professor, psychologist, and author Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. Yet most of the time we tend to believe that a smile, while nice in the moment, is too tiny or inconsequential to make much of a difference. But according to Fredrickson every smile, and all the other positive emotions we have during the course of the day, add up to tremendous benefits to the quality of our mental, emotional and physical health. So yes, it matters whether you smiled today. In fact, it could be one of the most important things you do for yourself or others as your future unfolds.
Dr. Fredrickson knows this because she is an expert on positive emotions. But just to be clear, positive emotions are not the same as happiness. According to her research of over 20 years, positive emotions are narrow-band feelings in the moment, not overall judgements about your life. In other words, the vast majority of the time when a person talks about happiness, it is the collection of the number and quality of positive emotions a person experiences in a given set of time. What this says to me is that if you don’t think of yourself as happy, that indicates that you are experiencing a severe lack of positive emotions in your day-to-day life.
Actually, it is Fredrickson’s belief that instead of focusing so much on happiness as a goal, we would all be better off if we instead worked on discovering which emotions fill up our days. Then, if we can increase the number of positive emotions in those moments, that not only gives our mental state a positive boost, but it also pays off in many other benefits as well. And yes, it’s likely we’ll be able to look back on the day and say we felt happy.
First let’s look at what are considered to be positive emotions:
- Gratitude & Appreciation
- Connection to others
- Optimism and Anticipation
It is rather obvious why each of these emotions could be considered positive, but they also play into another focus of Fredrickson’s work which is her “broaden and build theory.” In a nutshell, that theory suggests that when we fill our daily moments with positive emotions they have a “broadening effect.” This broadening effect then builds and frees us from the more traditional negative responses to life (those flight-or-fight responses like fear or anger.)
In other words, when we aren’t locked into a fight-or-flight response to those around us or the world at large, we literally see more, we hear more, we have more creativity, more choices, more options. By broadening and building on positive emotions we not only feel better, we do better. And that of course tends to lead to all sorts of beneficial things in our bodies, minds and souls.
Fredrickson’s research proves that a reservoir of positive emotions (go ahead, look at that list above again) impacts us on many levels. She says, “When people increase their daily diets of positive emotions, they find more meaning and purpose in life. They also find that they receive more social support—or perhaps they just notice it more, because they’re more attuned to the give-and-take between people. They report fewer aches and pains, headaches, and other physical symptoms. They show mindful awareness of the present moment…they feel more effective at what they do. They’re better able to savor the good things in life and can see more possible solutions to problems. And they sleep better.” She even goes on to say that it likely helps us to live longer as well.
So let’s say we all agree that smiling is a good thing. Is any smile okay? And how many smiles are necessary? More research proves that in order to generate true positivity resonance, we need to generate sincere and authentic smiles. People can tell—we can tell—the difference. Fredrickson also believes that face-to-face smiles are most beneficial. How many? Fredrickson says, “Well one smile isn’t going to do it. It’s more like we need to increase our daily diet of genuine smiles. My research suggests the tipping point is three to one positive to negative emotions.” In other words, for every negative feeling we experience, a minimum of three or more positives is necessary.
But in case you are wondering, Fredrickson doesn’t advocate that we completely eliminate or ignore negative emotions. It is unhealthy mentally, emotionally or physically to do that. Instead, she believes a large reservoir of positive emotions will help us best face and deal with the many challenges that life can bring. Like I’ve written about before, being able to handle the paradox of both positive and negative emotions is critical to a healthy life.
In case you are wondering, Fredrickson does offer suggestions for increasing our positive emotions. She believes becoming aware in the present moment is the most important thing we can do. Think about it. If you are focused on yourself or worrying about your past or your future—you’ll miss those people right in front of you—and the chance to smile. Another suggestion is to pay attention to human kindness—not just what others are doing for you—but what you can do for others. If you spend all your time on Facebook looking at things that make you angry or sad, you are actually narrowing your mental capacity, imagination and ability to respond in a positive way. If you must look at Facebook, look at the ways people are doing good and helping each other—or things that make you laugh.
And let’s not forget gratitude. When you take the time to reflect on all the good in your life—right now, how can you not be filled with positive emotion? Fredrickson also recommends getting outside and spending time in nature. Studies show that spending 30 minutes outdoors in nice weather can definitely improve our mood and sense of wellbeing. And then there is the value of mindfulness training and lovingkindness meditation.
My biggest takeaway? The reminder that positive emotion is literally like the sun to a water lily. The more it gets, the more it opens up. When we flood our world with positive emotion (and don’t forget that’s not just ha, ha feel-good), then we open our awareness to the world around us. We can see more, hear more, remember more, understand more. We are more creative and receptive to possibilities. We see more opportunity and are far, far more resilient when facing challenges. If you encounter anyone who is closed-minded and myopic, then chances are good they have little or no sunlight (positive emotion) in their lives.
I also think it is critical to keep remembering that our emotions are contagious around others. When I’m feeling good, hopeful and generous, that transfers to everyone around me. It also infuses my writing and my relationships. When I share that with others, that not only broadens and builds that resonance within me, it helps everyone around me. No one is suggesting that life is always easy or that we aren’t facing big challenges in the world today—but according to the research, it would be SMART to do our best to broaden and build positive emotion for ourselves and others whenever we can. And a good smile or two today just might be the best place to start.
For more fascinating info on this subject: